Many HSPs grew up having their emotions invalidated. How do you break the cycle — and finally heal?
Emotional depth and nuance are hallmarks of highly sensitive people. You have probably noticed that you naturally experience a wide range of emotions and a poignancy to your feelings, even in situations where other people may not experience such emotional intensity.
These strong emotional experiences are part of the beauty of being an HSP. We are passionate. We love fiercely. Our feelings help us experience deep empathy for other people and strong connections with animals, the natural environment, and our spirituality.
But what happens if these emotional strengths aren’t nourished?
Highly sensitive children have big emotional needs that even many well-meaning, loving parents and caregivers may not be equipped to recognize and support. When sensitive kids are given the message that their emotions are too much for the adults in their lives, they grow into highly sensitive adults who may feel:
- Ashamed of their emotional intensity or of specific feelings like anger, sadness, or grief
- Disconnected from their emotions, if they have learned that ignoring or minimizing feelings is the acceptable way to cope with them
- Confused about how to balance self-disclosure and setting boundaries with others
- Insecure about sharing their emotions with other people due to fears of being judged, invalidated, or rejected.
Emotions are meant to give us important information for moving through life. If our emotional self-development as children isn’t well supported, we lose access to that information, leaving us without a map for successfully navigating adult life.
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What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?
Dr. Jonice Webb is the foremost theorist on the concept of childhood emotional neglect (CEN). She defines it as the failure of parents/primary caregivers to “respond enough” to a child’s emotional needs. This might look like invalidation, minimization of a child’s full emotional experience, or a refusal to engage with a child when the child is emotionally aroused.
CEN is a pervasive pattern of mismatched responses to a child’s emotional life over time, not just an occasional instance when a caregiver misses a child’s needs. Webb points out that this chronic misalignment can leave an adult feeling empty, unfulfilled, emotionally dysregulated, and disconnected from other people. They may feel like life is overwhelming and like they cannot cope as well as other people.
CEN is harmful to all children, not just highly sensitive ones. But the research on differential susceptibility — the tendency of sensitive people to be more affected by both the good and bad things in their environment — makes it clear that highly sensitive children are especially vulnerable to long-term effects from adverse experiences. In the case of CEN, highly sensitive children may grow into adults who experience difficulties in emotional management, relationships, and self-esteem. Not surprisingly, these difficulties may be magnified by an HSPs inherent responsiveness to emotions or the environment and their risk of overly empathizing with others at the expense of their own needs.
How to Heal from Childhood Emotional Neglect as a Highly Sensitive Adult
What I have noticed in my psychotherapy practice is that many of my clients are not familiar with the concept of CEN. Thus, they may think that their lack of self-confidence, problems asking for help, and feelings of chronic overwhelm are distinct problems, rather than rooted in a common origin. Or they may assume that their HSP temperament is at the heart of every issue they face. This can make people feel weak or burdened by their sensitivity, instead of seeing it as a strength and an asset, as Andre Sólo and Jenn Granneman argue in their book, Sensitive.
Understand Your CEN
Understanding how CEN has impacted you is the first step to healing. To do so, you can complete Webb’s CEN questionnaire and read more about emotional neglect so that you recognize the specific ways that your childhood emotional needs were unmet. Be sure to spend some time reflecting on the mix of CEN and your HSP temperament, which may look different for each person.
As you sort out qualities that are related to your sensitivity from the consequences of CEN, it becomes easier to identify your unmet childhood emotional needs. It is important to take an honest and thorough inventory. You may want to write down specific examples, such as the times when you were told you needed to toughen up when you cried after your little league team lost, or when your family dismissed or made fun of your fear of the dark.
The point of this exercise is not to demonize your family of origin. As someone who uses narrative therapy approaches, I assume that your caregivers had reasons for responding to you in the ways that they did. Perhaps they were not aware of what you needed as a highly sensitive child at a particular stage of development. It’s possible they lacked the skills or support for themselves to parent you differently. The reasons for the CEN are less important than your ability to recognize your unmet childhood needs and how they affect you as an adult.
Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System?
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Use Narrative to Reframe Your Past
Once you have clarity about the ways that you remain wounded, you can use narrative approaches to create new stories. Those tears after little league that you thought were a sign of your weakness and an embarrassment to your parents? Maybe you develop a new story about them that reflects how deeply you cared about being a good teammate and how passionate you were about your sport. You know (by taking an adult look at your family) that your parents wanted to stop your tears because they never learned from their parents how to tolerate strong feelings. You can see that they didn’t know how to support a child whose heart is breaking, since your parents struggled to understand how important things were to you as a child. Rather than being a sign of weakness, your regular crying episodes might have been a way you rebelled against your parents’ stoicism and allowed your heart to stay soft.
Taking this story into the present, you might recognize that your tendency to cry as an adult when you struggle to reach a goal at work is rooted in these childhood patterns. You might think about how to cultivate an appreciation for who you are—a passionate, caring person who wants the best for everyone around them. Crying might then seem like an appropriate response, a sign of the fire inside you.
There are an infinite number of ways to rewrite the stories of your childhood to reflect a wiser, gentler view of yourself and to empower yourself to make new interpretations, try new behaviors, and allow your true, highly sensitive self to shine. You can still acknowledge the impact of your CEN on your adult self, as well as the pressures of living in a world that can be hostile to HSPs (to say nothing of the impact of contextual factors like gender, race, sexual identity, class, and other identities).
Harness the Power of Forgiveness
The question of forgiveness invariably arises when people are examining their childhoods. Do you need to forgive your caregivers for CEN? Do you need to forgive yourself for how you’ve coped with CEN over the years? I would argue that the benefits of forgiveness in changing multigenerational patterns and discovering how to flourish are worth the effort it takes to forgive.
Remember, forgiving is not condoning, forgetting, or continuing to allow yourself to suffer due to someone else’s behavior. Forgiveness allows us to change our narrative and reclaim the ownership of our stories. You get to decide how to create the stories of your sensitivity, your identities, and your value to others.
Self-Compassion Supports Healing from CEN and Embracing Your Sensitivity
Kristin Neff’s research on self-compassion suggests that we can grow more resilient by turning compassion inward. This kind of resilience—our ability to cope with and move forward from challenges—is vital to healing from CEN.
Self-compassion can even help you learn to embrace your sensitivity, even if it was criticized or rejected by your caregivers. Becoming gentler with yourself as you work through the painful parts of your childhood relationships can help you stick to your commitment to overcoming the negative effects of being emotionally neglected as a child.
Join what Granneman and Sólo call the “sensitive revolution” and choose to heal your CEN in a self-compassionate way — a way that will support your gifts and your sensitive nature. The world is waiting for the strengths of your sensitivity to shine.
My new book, Wander and Delve: A Journal for Bright, Creative, Highly Sensitive People Forging Their Way, can help you recognize how you have been impacted by CEN and build a flourishing, Singularly Sensitive life.
You Might Like:
- What Happens When a Highly Sensitive Person Grows Up with Emotional Neglect
- Why Healing Your Inner Child Is a Game-Changer for HSPs
- The Truth About Overwhelming Emotions, According to a Highly Sensitive Therapist
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